Monday, 16 May 2016

Some exhibitions attended in May

Over the bank holiday weekend we went into London to go visit a couple of things - firstly the Hilma af Klint exhibition at the Serpentine and secondly re-visiting some select galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The reason I wanted to see the Hilma af Klint exhition was that curators frequently claim that she was at the forefront of abstraction, and having bought a catalogue of an exhibition that was shown in Hamburg in 2013, I throught it would be good to see the work in the flesh - to see the works in full scale to see how she had applied the pint and worked out her compositions.

There is an excellent documentary about Hilma af Klint on Youtube. In it the curator claims af Klint as an abstract artist working before and at the same time as Kandinsky and Malevich. There is a suggestion that she was somehow written out of the modern art cannon because she was a woman. However I have some reservations about this reading of her art. The curatorial discourse does not hide af Klint's deep interest in spiritualism and Theosophy and it is from these spiritual roots that her work arises first. The catalogue I have shows work by an American spiritual artist, Georgiana Houghton, who also worked with abstract scrolling and wavy loops in her work, using many different colours and some representational elements. She worked in the 1860s, so even earlier than af Klint. Basically both were committed spiritualists and their work was channeled by them as mediums.

And I think that is what makes their work different from the 'grand masters' of Modernism. As far as I understand it, Modernism was about seeing things in radically different ways , challenging historicism and trying to find a new language for art, where non-representation and elemental forms were crucial. And this was often accompanied by a political stance to society. If, as af Klint, you are making art works that speak about a spiritual life of esoteric spirit, and add text to create a view of spiritual and religious life then this is something different. I didn't see any hints of any way that af Klint was working out abstraction in these terms. Her work was definitely 'abstract', but this was in the context of her belief system. In a small annex to the main gallery there were some small drawings of circular designs. In Swedish (af Klint's native language) each drawing was described according to various religion's relationships to certain concepts such as 'image of God' and so on. And nowhere had a curator attenpted to describe this or interpret what might be going on.

This left me with a distinct feeling that reclaiming af Klint's abstraction as a missing 'link' somehow in the history of Modernist abstraction is a bit of an art historical contrivance. I enjoyed af klints doodle-like large paintings. There was much to reflect on in relation to how this work was informed by a (possibly) particular woman's sensitivity, but I think this work should be seen as part of that line of work - through spiritualism and Theosophy - and perhap think about Mondrian in that connection (rather than Kandinsky).

After this we went to the Victoria & Albert Museum. This is a great museum and on this occassion I went to the jewelry and the tapestry galleries. The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries are always worth a visit, the colours fine, the stories interesting, and this time there was a Morris & Co tapestry with some designs by Phillip Webb drawings hanging near by showing the designs for the weaving. Very good and always inspiring - and of course the jewelry was equally fine - some great pieces of interesting designs.

A textile exhibition

I also managed to sqeeze in a visit to the World Ikat Textiles...ties that bind exhibition at SOAS, University College London. This was an excellent exhibition, showing ikat weaves from many different nations and continents including Japan, China, India, Thailand, Africa and other countries of the Far East and South America. There were shawls and garments - both old and contemporary. The European examples were mainly 18th century used in dresses and accessories, these were not as strong in their designs as some of the finer ones from Africa or Japan for example, which were some of my favourites. The breadth of the items on show showed different uses of dye, whether printed or dipped warps and wefts, single ikat and double ikat weaves. The recent weaves included works made in Thailand designed by young designers in an effort to keep the traditional craft alive. They were long beautiful runs of large bold circles and other elemental shapes in pure colours and others in finely graded muted colours. There was also a film showing ikat preparation and weaving in progress, as well as weavers from India weaving on a large loom in the gallery, and people could stop and discuss the work as it progresses.

The exhibition runs until the 25th June and is well worth a visit if you enjoy textiles. 

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